Over the past 18 months, Greeley-Evans School District board of education meetings at times have been tense and unpleasant.
District 6 Chief of Communications Theresa Myers recently described the meetings as having an “air of disrespect and anger.” Myers said district representatives, from staff to board of education members, have received emails and phone calls from community members who say they don’t want to attend the proceedings because of the angry and hostile environment surrounding the proceedings.
“We have heard from people who have said that. … I think we get a little after every meeting,” Myers said, adding it’s “unacceptable” for anyone to feel unsafe in the boardroom.
The district has been challenged by multiple people during public comment dating to at least 2021. The individuals have questioned decisions and protocols on masks during COVID-19, the place of Bibles and Christianity in schools, and the content of books in libraries leading to discussions on book-banning.
At times, the criticisms have been harsh and direct, and pointed at board of education members, Superintendent Deirdre Pilch or district administrative leaders who attend the meetings. Chatter and conversation at times continue as the meetings progress.
The theme of the bi-monthly meetings being inhospitable reoccurred on Sept. 12 when the board of education considered the possibility of suspending public comment.
Two weeks later, the tension was dialed up a few degrees with confrontations among citizens and between meeting attendees and a District 6 teacher.
With another board meeting scheduled for Monday at the district administration building, the school system is no closer to improving the atmosphere in the first-floor boardroom.
Pilch has discussed the issue with administrators and the board of education, and the board has received legal counsel on what it can and can’t do with public comment, but no solid answers have emerged on reasserting civility, Myers said.
Board president Michael Mathews has made multiple comments during recent meetings on behavior in the room — at times asking attendees to refrain from clapping or speaking out following a speaker’s comments.
Mathews reads a lengthy statement at the start of the public participation, and it notes the district is committed to providing an environment where all members of the school community are treated with respect. The statement asks for speakers’ remarks to be suitable for district students from kindergarten through 12th grade.
The statement also says anyone who disturbs the order of the comment period might be required to sit or asked to leave the meeting.
Earlier this year, the Greeley Education Association brought a statement to the board asking for civility from community members.
“There is a lack of civil behavior and decorum for the meeting,” former GEA president Andraya Lee said. “It’s OK not to agree, but it’s not OK to be uncivil while they are presenting.”
A district resident who pays attention to the meetings said it’s an environment they don’t want to experience. The resident declined to speak with the Greeley Tribune on the record because of a chance of becoming a target for other attendees who disagree with any position offered.
The resident says the reaction is name-calling and belittling of others in the room, creating an overall hostile environment.
“It’s frustrating to watch these meetings at home, so I can’t imagine in person,” the resident said.
The board continues to consider the suspension of public comment, which is not legally mandatory in Colorado, according to open meeting laws. The Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition website said boards, commissions and councils “typically set their own ground rules for letting the public speak during designated portions of meetings.”
The coalition’s website, citing two U.S. court cases, explains the public comment rules cannot be operated in a discriminatory or viewpoint-restricted way. But reasonable restrictions that apply to all speakers, such as limiting the time allowed and removing a speaker who causes a disturbance, can be enforced.
The District 6 board has tweaked public comment twice since February. The first move was to increase the time allotted to each speaker from two to three minutes. As of Sept. 26, a public speaker’s time was reduced to two minutes, and comment on non-agenda items was moved to later in the meeting.
The order of the public comment on agenda items early in the meeting was prioritized for students, parents and then community members. Mathews said the change was made “to make sure our students do, in fact, come first,” while adding students and parents might have a smaller window of time at night when the meetings are held.
“They desperately want to provide an opportunity for the public to address them,” Myers said.
A District 6 parent who attended the Sept. 26 meeting left feeling “terrified” and vowed not to return. The parent also declined to speak on the record with the Greeley Tribune, citing concerns of retaliation.
The parent felt targeted and later learned there is a general understanding and acceptance of the meetings as “crazy.”
“Why should we be concerned about people’s safety at school board meetings?” the parent asked. “Why are school board meetings high risk? It’s an unsafe place, and I don’t understand how we get from free speech to unsafe.”
District chief of safety and security John Gates and deputy Wade Corliss, both former Greeley police officers, are on-site during the meetings — with both men and often a uniformed officer in the board room.
Gates, the Greeley mayor, said he and the officers are very visible at the meetings. Gates, as the sergeant at arms, sits in the back of the room where he sees all doors.
The officers had a lot of activity to monitor during the Sept. 26 meeting and after, as attendees remained in the building or outside.
Gates said it was the officers’ role and goal to see all attendees were safe.
“Sometimes verbal disputes can turn into physical disputes,” Gates said. “That was our goal, to get everyone out of there without turning into physical disputes.”
Scott Elementary School fifth-grade teacher Kimberly Destree said she was not afraid to attend the meeting and address the board, but she understands those who are fearful because of the way people and board members are addressed.
Destree said she had not attended a board meeting in several years prior to Sept. 26, but she’s watched meetings online and realized later others might not be so willing to speak because of how their comments might be received.
“I believe in people speaking their mind and sharing their experiences,” Destree said. “When people’s free speech takes away the rights of others, it ceases to be free speech at that point, and that is the kind of thing that I’m worried about at our board meetings.”
Destree was not afraid to attend the Sept. 26 meeting to address the board about national “Banned Book Week” in late September because “it’s an issue close to my heart,” she said. Destree spoke against any censoring of reading materials and for intellectual freedom. Destree said later choices on reading materials should be made by readers and their parents.
“We are a stronger community with diverse choice,” Destree said.
She told the board literature was her instruction to the world while growing up in rural Colorado. As a young reader, she was largely allowed to make her own decisions about what books to read. Destree’s mother talked with Destree about what the girl was reading, asked questions and allowed Destree and her brother to form their own opinions.
“I am someone whose life was changed by literature, and the fact that some people in the community and in our nation would seek to limit students’ access to literature, it bothers me greatly,” Destree said late last week.
Destree said when she returned to her seat, she was engaged by another attendee about her remarks. Destree said the inquiry didn’t feel genuine and that the individual might have been trying to get a “gotcha moment” from Destree, who added she noticed attendees taking photos of the room during the meeting.
Destree said she quickly decided not to join in additional conversation and replied that she gave her opinion at the podium.
As she left the building, she was accompanied by two security officers who said they wanted to see her safely to her vehicle. Destree said she was “frustrated” at being escorted to her vehicle and the need for the action.
“I was puzzled that there was concern for me, and it gave me pause,” Destree said. “Whether there was general concern and it’s common at district buildings. It did feel odd to me, and I didn’t know if everyone who spoke was being escorted.”